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Laurence Inman’s Blog

THE FUTURE NOW

24-07-2008

The future then

Writers are always predicting the way the world will look in the years to come – and always getting it wrong.  Laurence Inman looks back to the future.

Anthony Trollope was a very interesting bloke.

He suffered terribly in his childhood and schooldays from the intermittent penury of his family and the bullying of his posher classmates at Winchester, but survived and made himself one of the most prolific, professional and wealthy of nineteenth century novelists.

He wasn’t nearly as good as Dickens or Thackeray. In fact it has been said that he is read mostly by people who don’t really like novels.

Two Tory Prime Ministers have named him as their favourite writers: Harold  Macmillan and somebody called Major.

He combined over half his writing life with working for the Post Office. He surveyed the whole of Britain, including Ireland, on horseback, deciding where the pillar boxes should go.

Most of his books are satires on party politics and the established church. He was very good at the personal disintegration of characters afflicted by a particular weakness; Cousin Henry and He Knew He Was Right are brilliant examples.

But he wrote one book which unlike anything else he did, called The Fixed Period.

It was written in 1880 and is set a hundred years in the future. In 1980, he imagines, there is an independent republic called Brittanula, an ex-British colony, somewhere near New Zealand.

The president pushes his pet project through parliament – everyone who reaches the age of sixty-seven has to go and live in a home for a year and is then quietly disposed of.

The idea is that instead of living their last few years in poverty, pain, illness and uncertainty, everyone can be guaranteed a luxurious and tranquil final year before being humanely killed, thus saving the state a pile of money.

The plan fails because when the first few people have to be admitted to the home, they chicken out. Word reaches England and a huge gunboat is sent out to reclaim the land for the old country.

It’s an interesting story on two counts.

First, as a study of how one person, even in a so-called democracy, can impose his (or her) own eccentric views on everybody else, it can’t help but remind us of events in our own time. And the nutters who set them in train.

Second, it’s another fascinating insight into how our forebears thought the future would turn out.

Trollope didn’t see air travel or the internal combustion engine coming at all; he had the trip to the antipodes done in a few days in a super-steamer and the big weapon he threatened the Britannulists with was basically just that – a bigger version of the old technology.

H G Wells produced a far more accurate and frightening vision of the twentieth century, but had the advantage of being born fifty years later.

The film version of Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four, with John Hurt and Richard Burton, cleverly projects 1949 technology into a totalitarian society 35 years hence. It’s the only interesting thing about it, unfortunately.

We’re still waiting for those molecular transporter things they had in Star Trek. I’m also looking forward to the stun guns you can use on anybody who gets on your nerves. And the tight suits. Particularly for the women. Also, the novelty of non-warping time is beginning to wear off for me.

But who would have thought, thirty years ago, that virtually every house would now have a computer and that you could send letters instantaneously through the cyber-ether?   (Well, actually, I did. I wrote a kids story in 1973 envisioning just such a thing. It was called The Last Word.)

Two things, however, no one could have predicted:

That the rich would be able to tax us all through a little phone which you keep in your pocket and which is mainly used for shrieking gibberish in the street to someone you’re going to see in five minutes anyway and taking photos of people’s arses at parties.

And that you could eat an ounce of ‘food’ and immediately weigh half a stone more as a result.

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